Climate Change Brand Purpose Climate Crisis

What is marketing’s role in the climate crisis? It’s OK if you’re not sure

By Julie Reid, Strategy Director



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February 24, 2023 | 8 min read

Digital agency Hallam’s Julie Reid gives an honest account of being stuck between climate pragmatism and utopianism.

An idyllic scene of a seaside sunset

Utopianism or practicality? Hallam’s Julie Reid says it’s okay to be caught between the two. / Zac Durant via Unsplash

It could be said that an op-ed that sits firmly on the fence rather than coming down definitively on one side or the other is close to useless. But I have to admit: I ride the pendulum when it comes to the marketing industry’s role in the climate crisis. I am envious of those people who know their minds on this – whichever side they’ve landed. I read their pieces and wish I couldn’t see both sides of the argument.

I’ve spent the last four or five years reading, writing and taking action around purpose in business, social justice causes, the climate crisis and the role marketing can play in it all.

I completed the Harvard Business School’s Sustainable Business Strategy course (while I was working as head of content for a production agency telling the stories of purpose-driven brands). I was part of the first-year steering committee for Ad Net Zero and have volunteered with the wonderful people at Purpose Disruptors.

As a citizen, I firmly believe our planet has finite resources, that we need to reduce our consumption overall, and that we must move to a circular economy as soon as possible.

But I’ve also read Steve Harrison’s Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell, and I remember David Ogilvy’s summation of our role: “we sell or else”. I’ve followed the negotiations around the positioning and weighting of the words ‘purpose’ and ‘profit’ at companies like Unilever and P&G.

Fight or flight?

Marketers exist to fuel desire and sell products to keep businesses viable, supporting employees and local communities and paying taxes. The capitalist model isn’t something we can turn off overnight.

In my back and forth on this topic, I suppose I’m looking for a pragmatic middle ground. I keep coming back to Buckminster Fuller’s quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Is that cowardly? Perhaps. It does feel like we’re running out of time to create a new model that is compelling – and easy – enough to transition people onto.

I think frequently of leaving adland and finding a role with a company actively working on solutions to the challenges facing our world. But until that day arrives, I will continue seeking a practical way to make my contribution to marketing net positive.

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Who are you working for?

One way this works for me is working for an agency that is coalescing around purpose and navigating the same questions as I am over how to balance purpose with profit – doing business with decency and making enough money to keep the 60 people here in employment.

It’s not easy, but we’ve started the journey and are committed to following through. I helped lead the initiative to become B Corp certified and that set off a number of practical implications: changing our articles of association to consider the needs of all stakeholders when making decisions (not just shareholders); seeking to be a good partner in our local community; and updating or creating new policies that make life better for our team.

We also regularly vet the new business opportunities that come in and only move forward with those that align with our values. Over the past two years, this has meant turning down big brands and walking away from existing client relationships.

The best thing we can do (individuals and agencies alike) is to work with businesses that subscribe to the circular economy lifecycle and create products that are more sustainable, doing less harm to the environment. For there to be mass adoption from society, we need products that don’t require a compromise on choice, convenience or price.

There are also brilliant initiatives across the industry that both agencies and clients can benefit from:

  • The Change the Brief Alliance: allowing agencies and clients to talk about adapting work to promote more sustainable choices and behaviors in line with a zero-carbon world.

  • AdGreen: helping the ad industry eliminate negative environmental impacts of production through tools like the AdGreen carbon calculator, resources and training.

  • IPA Media Carbon Calculator: measuring the overall carbon footprint of media plans and enabling conversations between agencies and clients about reducing the climate impact of running campaigns

  • Advertised emissions and ‘eco-effectiveness: two examples of measuring the carbon footprint of the product sales that result from our advertising campaigns. This is the data we need to power conversations around consumption (if and when the industry is ready to do so).

I’m unable to commit to the activist mindset, though there are people I know and admire who are in that group. And I’m unable to sit easily with my role in encouraging consumption and working to keep growth going at all costs.

The best I can do is look for ways to transition to a better system that offers more and better connections with each other, with nature, and with the idea of ‘enough’. And to find like-minded people to work alongside to make it a reality.

Climate Change Brand Purpose Climate Crisis

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